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The Role Of Civil Society in Pakistan and India

Session 1
Session 2
Session 3
Session 4
Closing & Thanks
Notes on Speakers



Civil Society in India and Pakistan, 1

Based on the procedings of the seminar "The Role Of Civil Society in Pakistan and India:
Peace, Conflict Resolution, Democracy" by Jang Group of Newspapers (Pakistan) & Friedrich/Naumann Foundation (Germany), September 12-13, 1997 at Pearl Continental Hotel, Karachi.

Text edited by Khurram Ali Shafique and Farida Z. Hemani

Session 1

The present state of civil society in Pakistan and India

with special emphasis on the impact of caste system and traditional values as well as social practices which impinge on respect for human dignity

S.V. Raju
Dr. Manzoor Ahmad
Dr. Sri Ram Khanna
Mr. Abdullah J. Memon
Dr. Hamza Alvi

S. V. Raju (India)

Quotes from the speaker

Under certain circumstances individual freedom must accept restrains.

Harmony and conflict are part of life – more so of life in a society. And in a complex and diverse society like India it would be utopian to look for conditions of perfect harmony.

My right to pursue my life and ambitions is restricted by the others’ right to pursue their life and ambitions. And what is true of individuals is also true of societies.

If we have been able to survive as a nation – admittedly bumbling along and way behind in economic development when compared to the communist China – I would say it is because we are a democracy [and] have the opportunity every now and then to change government. And because we are a democracy we have a vibrant civil society. We prefer this path to that of dictatorship.

If at all we are looking forward to some kind of a future, it is perhaps because of the activities of voluntary organisations.

S.V. Raju Editor, Freedom First focused on "An overview of the civil society in India: a personal interpretation." Refraining from quoting others he underlined the personal nature of his overview by stating that it has become a favourite pastime now "to quote ‘scripture’ (using the word in its secular and not religious sense) for supporting this and that view of ours without believing in that scripture ourselves, let alone practising the spirit of the scripture.

While describing himself as "a liberal with a capital L" Mr. Raju, however accepted that a liberal government must not mean a weak government, rather a government that could ensure the rule of law and create conditions where the individual citizen has the opportunities to develop and which could also attend to the basic needs pertaining to the infra-structure: primary health, energetic policies for population control and primary education. "But what we don’t desire is a meddlesome government that would keep interfering with what is the domain of the people: the domain of the civil society.

He also mentioned that different groups living in a heterogeneous society, each pursuing their own secular or religious goals, must remain prepared to make adjustments in their goals so as not to intrude upon the goals of the others – i.e. what may be described as "interdependence in freedom."

Mr. Raju’s personal overview of the Indian civil society presents the picture of an essentially open society with (1) great freedom of press ("We don’t have paparazis yet but we are not far away), (2) a system of franchise that yields generally free and fair elections (with, of course, some exceptions – particularly in what they call "bemaroo" states, i.e. Bihar, Madhiapradesh, Rajhasthan and Uttarpradesh), and (3) a reasonably good situation of law and order.

  1. On the darker side, there are other factors that constitute threat to the civil society. These are described by him as the following. Lure for power. The leaders are prepared to any degree of humiliation as long as they can ensure that they would be included in the ministry. A case in point is the Chief Minister Lallu Prasad Yadav. When he was sent to jail by a court on the charges of frauds, he had the cheek to appoint his wife as a chief minister – to ensure that upon his return he gets back his position. In another state, a couple of totally dissimilar parties were seen entering into coalition to share government on a six monthly rotation – of course, when the time came for the other party to take over after six months, the coalition ran into troubles.
  2. Large scale corruption, which has not only destroyed the credibility of the politician but of the polity itself. Candidates spend huge sums provided by businessmen who treat these sums as investments which must provide returns. "In recent years, criminals have not found it necessary to have front-men as their candidates and have offered themselves as candidates and have got elected." The press is full, not just of stories like two gangsters forming political parties in Bombay, but also of the data on criminals in all parties who have been convicted or charged but have still managed it to the assemblies.

Delayed justice and its denial to some in the jail without trial. Since the independence, the legal system has become a web of laws and by-laws so that a common citizen who goes to the court in search of justice soon finds himself in an enmesh of legal entangles that may go on for years. On the other hand there is a general disregard for the human being and his rights in a civil society "which not only results in jail without trial but also numerous custodial deaths that are often hushed up – rarely are officers tried, found guilty and punished for such deaths."

Communal disturbance is an issue which, according to Mr. Raju, is generally related to the first problem. "The Babri Masjid episode in my view was a calculated attempt to secure Hindu support [adopted] as a short-cut by a political party." On the other hand, as can be seen in the famous Shah Bano Case of the late eighties, "the desire to secure the Muslim vote led the ruling party – under pressure from the fundamentalist Muslims – to pass amendment in the parliament to undo a Supreme Court decision granting alimony to divorced Muslim women."

"In spite of the failing of the state, or perhaps because of the failings of the state, civil society is driving towards an increasingly participatory democracy."

As governments fail to fulfil their roles in solving these problems, voluntary organisations or NGOs are emerging in thousands "either to take on the work that the governments failed to do, or compel governments to do the work they were elected to do." The spectrum covered by these NGOs is wide: non-formal education, social problems (such as conflicts caused by the wide-spread violence), drug abuse, alcoholism, breakdown of families, health, women’s empowerment, drinking water, income-generation, re-tooling (which is becoming a very important thing in the post-liberation period), philanthropy, consumer education, consumer protection, cancer research, AIDS prevention, combating superstition, and so on… There is hardly any field of activity where you will not find one or the other voluntary organisation, and, generally, people are responding and stepping in.

A very distinct feature of the Indian civil society is the emerging role of women in solving their own and the others’ problems – many village panchayats are being run by women, and they appear to be doing a much better job than men. "It is not a meherbani that we, the men are giving them. They are now demanding it and getting it." Indeed, they are far from being proxies. Rabri Devi Yadav, the wife of Lallu Prasad Yadav, is one proof that the ingenuity required by a housewife to run a home is … being put to a very good use to run a state administration."

In case of the Dallits, Dr. Raju is of the opinion that the reservations provided by the constitution-makers for a fixed period were a good strategy for uplifting the depressed classes. Even though such reservations have now become vote-getting machines they have also helped a long-forgotten class to rise up from the dust. The President of India belongs to the depressed class, and he is also a highly qualified and competent person. Incidentally, Lallu Yadav Prasad also belongs to the same class but Dr. Raju pointed out that the charges of fraud against him should not be relevant to any discussion on the participation of the depressed classes because Brahmins like Rajiv Gandhi have also been accused of similar charges.

Trade unions – even if one may accuse them of becoming a headache for the industries – have succeeded up to a great extent in securing the rights of the labour and some of them have come up with extremely organised research on relevant issues.

The future, therefore, is hopeful. The civil society is on the rise to maintain and increase liberalism the likely outlook of the nation, even if the governments fail to do so. And the civil society itself is now being joined by those classes that have remained peripheral in the history of India: the women, the depressed classes, and the labour.

Dr. Manzoor Ahmad (Pakistan)

Quotes from the speaker

Why does the west have civil societies whereas we, in the East, have failed to develop them?

Ideologies are coercive. If you want to develop societies please for God’s sake in so far as the state is concerned try to avoid ideologies.

Civil society cannot develop if you have a basically feudal structure in a country.

This population shift [from villages to cities] has made it possible for people to speak about issues related to civil society.

Number of voluntary groups working in Pakistan is amazing. And also the number of good voluntary groups is amazing. And the type of sacrifices they are making.

I always differentiate between theologies and Islam and religion.

If intellectual activity does not start in countries like India and Pakistan then civil society does not have any future.

In a country like Pakistan when the feudals and the bureaucrats join hands together then that is the worst kind of despotism.

Dr. Manzoor Ahmad presented a backdrop to the civil society in Pakistan, more from a "conceptual" milieu than a "descriptive" one.

Even though the word "civil society" is of a more recent origin – some people say Hegel used it for the first time – nevertheless it can be dated back to the time of the Greek philosophy, where it was used basically to distinguish between different types of governments, such as the despotic government, monarchy and democracy. For instance, in a despotic government the gap between the ruler and the people is too wide and the despot rules by fiat rather than by any rule: the public is under the direct gaze of the despot. Democracies, on the other hand, are said to be the type of government where there is a middle buffer – the civil society.

Dr. Manzoor expressed reservations about some of the differences listed by other scholars between the East and the West. For instance, Edward Saeed, in Orientalism, states that the difference between the Oriental and the Occidental (Western) thinking is that the West is rational, while the East is lazy. Others have stated that the Eastern societies were "hydraulic societies" – arid areas require water management that can best be achieved through strong centralised governments. Civil societies, on the contrary, have developed mostly in bourgeoisie set-ups as a crucial requirement of those economies. According to the views presented by Max Weber, religion would be counted as one of the impediments for the development of civil societies in areas like Pakistan.

Dr. Manzoor’s basic disagreement with such theories is that "when they include Islam in the Orient they make a mistake." The role Islam played in Spain and the Mediterranean regions brings it out as an occidental religion rather than an oriental one. Christianity, on the other hand, can more easily be classified as an oriental religion that only in its later phase developed ideas like Protestantism, etc., which helped development of the free individual and the civil society.

The central question asked by Dr. Manzoor is this: How come that a country like Pakistan – basically a Muslim country – and other Islamic countries could not develop a civil society? The implication is that Islam being an occidental religion, the Muslim societies should have followed a similar course as the Western societies (Edward Saeed says that the clearest differentiation mark between the lazy Oriental thinking and the rational Occidental thinking is the growth of civil societies under the latter.)

One possible reason is provided by certain scholars: Muslim rule could not develop legitimate opposition. Morally it was correct to say a brave word before the monarch but theological it wasn’t very correct unless you were sure you would be able to change the society and bring order. That was a tall demand and no opposition could legitimately undertake to fulfil it.

When one comes to the situation in Pakistan, there is a peculiar syndrome to be observed. Dr. Ahmad describes it through the following parameters:

    1. Any state that is desired to be established on an ideology is likely to become coercive and intolerant, no matter what that ideology is. Even if you take democracy as an ideology it would becomes coercive and intolerant because you start looking at the world from your perspective. Then you may start movements in those countries that are doing very well – you may start insurgencies in those countries, as is happening in the world today.
    2. "Theology, when it makes goodness in a society dependant on a fiat or an order, is another reason for the non-development of civil societies in countries like Pakistan." In Islamic history a particular modality, a particular type of theology was adopted that Dr. Ahmad calls "the theology of command and obedience – that a particular thing is good because it has been commanded and another thing is unlawful or not good because it has not been commanded." (It is an old question: somebody asks in a dialogue of Plato whether something is good because God has commanded it or whether God has commended it because it is good.)
    3. Certain elements of the local society (essentially Oriental) found their way to Islam when that Occidental religion came to the regions now known Pakistan and India. The local Oriental society "was a society in which there was a caste system and the Brahmin was the ruling class." It was very conducive to the Muslim governors to adopt this feature of the local society so that they could replace the Brahmin whom every one naturally obeyed. Another Oriental aspect that Islam borrowed from the local society was mysticism. While it has its positive values it has nevertheless at least two elements that are not conducive to the development of civil society: (a) master-disciple paradigm, where the disciple has to obey whatever the master says ("You have to dip the prayer-mat in wine if the master says so"), and (b) a tendency towards inactivity, mostly through a belief in fate: if fate decides all, and if fate is inevitable, then there is no sense in organised effort to change anything.
    4. A particular type of feudalism, where the feudals were placed in their position for particular reasons. "The feudalism we have here is totally anti-democratic, anti-education, anti-everything – quite unlike the one that they had in the Britain in the good old days which, in fact, caused the industrial revolution." Micheal Foucault makes an interesting observation: power and knowledge combine together. Since knowledge is also a tool for power, especially in the modern world, the groups in power in countries like Pakistan acquire sophisticated knowledge but keep the public deprived of knowledge in order to keep them powerless. In this manner even democracies can become "very, very coercive. And coercion in democracy comes through the bureaucracy."

On the positive side, Dr. Ahmad pointed out certain things happening in India and Pakistan that auger well for the development of civil society:

    1. Demographic structures are changing. In 1947, the population ratio between villages and cities was approximately 80 : 20. Now cities contain more than 5